Poland Asks: Is the US Ready to "Close the Sky"?
“We’ve gotta win,” declared Tim Kaine, the Virginia Senator and former Democratic vice presidential nominee, at a dramatic public hearing this week. More and more US politicians, from both parties, are avowedly of the mind that the US is now in a position to “win” the war in Ukraine. Which would seem to carry one obvious implication: that the US is a warring party in Ukraine. How could it not? In order to win a war, doesn’t one have to wage it first?
On his newfound resolve to achieve outright military victory, Kaine elaborated: “Democracies have to win this.” The passion with which elected officials are sounding these battle cries has greatly increased since one pivotal event: their mass Zoom meeting on March 5 with the newly-beatified Ukraine president, Zelensky. During that meeting, he reportedly made his most stirring “emotional plea” yet for US military intervention. And in subsequent days, you could see an intensified gleam in legislators’ eyes as they demanded the US do everything in its power to “defend freedom” alongside Zelensky. The urgency was compounded, according to Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), because if the US does not facilitate Ukraine’s triumph on the battlefield, it’s only a matter of time before other NATO countries are invaded by Putin and the US is forced to intervene anyway. So it’s now or never. On Tuesday, Zelensky followed up his Congressional plea with a deliberately “Churchillian” speech via Zoom to the UK Parliament. Which of course prompted a predictable outpour of sentimental pride, and further instilled the impression that the current period is redolent of World War II.
The sudden crusade by US officials to “win” militarily in Ukraine thus owes in part to the cinematic talents of Zelensky, but also critically to a unique ideological convergence — one that’s produced near-unanimous conviction in the righteousness of the war effort. For Democrats, the motivation was incubated during the manic period of 2016 to 2020, when Putin was vaulted to the status of world-historical supervillain — mainly for committing the unforgivable offense of “interfering” in the 2016 election by allegedly spear-phishing some emails. As the story goes, this resulted in the fraudulent installation of Donald Trump. Layered on top of that seismic grievance is Democrats’ belief that Putin is the main global exporter of right-wing insurrectionist terror, imperiling “liberal democracies” on multiple continents — and it’s time for “Democracy” with a Capital D to finally strike back, Marvel ensemble style.
“Now is not the time for cold feet and half measures,” boomed Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), one of the most zealous purveyors in Congress of classic Russiagate agitprop. The US must “make the decision to win in Ukraine,” Lieu implored, which will hopefully prompt someone to ask Ted for clarity on how exactly the US could be situated to make such a decision — unless it was a bonafide combatant in the war. Which we’re repeatedly assured is not the case, despite the US presently engineering the biggest infusion of weaponry into Europe since 1947.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), speaking this week from the sacred GOP grounds of the Reagan Library — and who certainly appears to be gearing up for a potential presidential run, at least if Trump bows out for whatever reason — best articulated the Republican side of this pro-war ideological synchronicity. “Today, a new Iron Curtain threatens to fall upon Ukraine,” Cotton declared. “Time and again, we have shown that we’ll annihilate armies, break empires, and topple tyrants if we’re provoked. And we can do it again if we have to.” Cotton was also on hand to reveal the big news that Zelensky had “won” the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award, the first recipient since 2011, which might as well be the Conservative Movement’s official bestowal of sainthood. The head of the Reagan Foundation explained that Zelensky deserved the high honor for “fighting a tyrant who is trying to glue the Soviet Union back together.” He joins Margaret Thatcher, George H. W. Bush, Yitzhak Rabin, Colin Powell, and Mikhail Gorbachev as official inductees to the pantheon of Reagan mythology.
Republicans also bait their constituents into supporting more and more escalatory moves by framing them as one-upmanship for the humiliating “weakness” of Joe Biden, thereby inflaming the standard partisan resentments that motivate so much political thinking and behavior. (Democrats do the same when they insinuate that total war against Putin somehow doubles as a proxy war against his collusion partner Trump.) In the Reagan Library speech, Cotton — demonstrating his unparalleled historical acumen — accused Biden of “appeasing” Putin and drew a comparison to who else but Neville Chamberlain, apparently the sole historical analogy that all manner of Serious People have access to in their brains. Based on a Facebook meme understanding of what occurred in 1938, naturally. Cotton capped off the week by wildly intimating that Putin is on track to invade the continental US.
In short, both Democrats and Republicans have created their own respective ideological constructs to engender cross-partisan support for the US war effort, and these constructs have combined to produce a level of fierce conformity unlike anything seen since 9/11. (Though marginalized, there was far more dissension around the invasion of Iraq — in the media, Congress, among street activists, and so forth). It is in this harried climate that proposals like the one trotted out recently by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) are being seriously entertained. Having just returned from a daring visit to the Poland-Ukraine border, Fitzpatrick came up with the brilliant idea to enforce a No Fly Zone using electro-magnetic pulse attacks — supposedly a more palatable alternative to a No Fly Zone enforced by kinetic warfare. Because blasting Russian planes out of the sky with huge explosions of radiation energy would go over much more smoothly with Putin.
Having been in Poland for around a week now, there’s an ironic disconnect between the increasingly furious rhetoric US politicians are pumping out, and the on-ground reality of what US military personnel deployed here are actually doing. In Krakow, members of the 82nd Airborne Division can be seen casually perusing the tourist areas — though few tourists other than them are present at the moment — taking photos of one another and sampling the local cuisine.
When they arrived around five weeks ago from Fort Bragg, there was no infrastructure set up to house the soldiers, so they built their own staging area northeast of Krakow. One told me that pre-Ukraine invasion, their ostensible mission in Poland was one of “deterrence” — to “give the State Department more weight to pressure Russia,” the soldier said. Post-invasion, the mission has converted mainly to “reassurance.” Both of which seem to mean the same thing in practice: the soldiers have been ordered to be physically present in Poland, and not much else has been specified beyond that. For one thing, US policy measures carried out in the name of “deterring” Putin manifestly failed — and in fact achieved the opposite. Not only did Putin invade despite the existence of these alleged “deterrents,” he angrily cites the large presence of US soldiers in Eastern Europe as a significant reason he invaded in the first place.
Although some members of the 82nd Airborne have conducted training exercises with the Polish military, neither of the two units I spoke with had. Instead they’ve been “sightseeing,” as one soldier told me. Whether their putative objective is “deterrence” or “reassurance,” the troops mostly seem to just be milling around, wondering what’s next. Such relative laxity doesn’t come across as particularly consistent with fevered declarations from US politicians about fighting alongside Ukrainians to the death.
Maybe this is a function of my own somewhat advancing age, and not a very unique observation, but I was immediately struck at how the soldiers are really just kids — the median age looked to be around 20 years old. They’ve barely been told much of anything about what they’re doing in Poland, and they’re kind of just taking the opportunity to goof off, eat pierogi, and do whatever else a 20-year-old tourist would do if dropped into this bizarre situation. (Speaking of pierogi, there’s a Freedom Fries-esque thing going on in Poland at the moment, with “Russian” style pierogi having been peremptorily renamed to “Ukrainian” pierogi in restaurant menus. As one waitress told me, “Russia, right now not everybody wants to eat them. So right now they are Ukraine.”)
The soldiers said they get occasional updates from Army intelligence officers about the war progress in Ukraine, but nothing really tangible pertaining to their own mission. Much of the info is drawn from the same “OSINT” sources — so-called “Open Source Intelligence” — that anybody with an internet connection can find on Twitter, Discord, and Telegram.
The most valuable intel that these guys (and a few girls) are collecting may be from their interactions with ordinary Poles. It was estimated that 9 times out of 10, these encounters are positive — “They’re afraid they’re going to be back in the Soviet Union,” one soldier said, summarizing Poles’ generally paranoid sentiments. But a couple of days ago, an older man did target them for a rant about US foreign policy and denounced their presence in the country as dangerously provocative. At a pub one night, another man drunkenly pleaded with them to assassinate Putin — they routinely get lobbied to go rogue and cross the border into Ukraine to fight Russia. Thankfully, they reported gently informing the Poles that they are not authorized to do this.
Outside the US Consulate in Krakow, I met Liza, a Ukrainian woman in her early 20s. On the fifth day of the war, she fled her hometown of Ternopil — around 90 miles east of Lviv — along with her mother, sister, and grandparents. “It’s a terrible situation,” she said. There hadn’t been significant fighting yet in this area of Western Ukraine, but her father insisted that “all women and children should leave.” Not much was left for them to do anyway; Liza’s mother is a teacher and the schools are all closed. She said Ukrainian soldiers were intercepting any able-bodied men who attempted to leave, as martial law has been declared in the country — her father stayed behind and is now working at the Ternopil railway station as part of an ad hoc civil defense force.
There’s been a massive influx of people from Kiev, Kharkiv, and other parts of Ukraine into her town, Liza said. She’s heard stories of people who have just arrived there in a daze: “They didn’t have nothing, they just have only their clothes which is on them, without any bags, without any money. They don’t know what to do, they don’t know how to leave, where to work. Because in my town there was 250,000 people, and now 250,000 came to our town. And there aren’t work for all those people.”
When her group decided to flee Ukraine, they first tried to board a train to Poland. But it was so outrageously jam-packed and the wait to cross the Polish border would’ve taken so long — at least three days, she said — that her grandfather decided to find a car and drive them all to Hungary. Then to Slovakia, and then finally north to Poland. They shared one bag amongst themselves. Their goal was to get a US visa so they could eventually go stay with her uncle, who lives in the “Ukrainian village” neighborhood of Chicago. “Everyone says come to Poland because visa gets approved faster,” she told me. People in Hungary could not understand them, she said, due to language gaps — few people there spoke any English. Whereas the Polish and Ukrainian languages are roughly similar and many Poles speak some English. So to Poland it was.
They were able to rent a temporary flat near the US Consulate in Krakow at a modest discount, and have spent the past 10 or so days working on the visa application process. Sure enough, right as we were speaking, Liza’s younger sister emerged from the Consulate with a plastic packet of documents containing a notice of approval; they plan to depart for Chicago within the next week.
Interestingly, when I asked Liza (and by proxy her mother) about the prospect of a No Fly Zone, they both dismissed it as an impossibility — not even really worth discussing. Liza’s mother said the citizens of Poland are too scared to go through with anything like that, because they believe “Putin is crazy” and could soon “invade Poland.” So far, the people I’ve met who are most vehement about demanding a No Fly Zone are not those who’ve just fled Ukraine; rather, they’re long-term Ukrainian expatriates. I’m not generalizing that into a blanket statement — something like 2.5 million people have already fled Ukraine, according to the latest UN estimate, so any such generalizations would be stupid. Just pointing out what I’ve personally observed.
One of the men leading daily rallies outside the same US Consulate in Krakow to demand a No Fly Zone is Adrian Harasyn, who is of Ukrainian origin but lived for years in Canada before moving to Poland. At a rally the afternoon of March 10, the demonstrators chanted — in English — “NATO close the sky” and “Putin second Hitler.” When asked for his theory on why some Americans, including Joe Biden, have been (so far) reluctant to support a No Fly Zone — given the whole World War III and nuclear annihilation thing — Harasyn said “they’re cowards.”
“It appears that the American values are not worth anything because America doesn’t want to sacrifice anything,” he charged.
The phrase “Close the Sky” has entered wide circulation in Poland as a euphemism on top of a euphemism. Because of course, the term “No Fly Zone” is itself intensely euphemistic, having been crafted to obscure what the policy would really mean — direct warfare between the US and Russia. But the double-euphemism looks to be having its intended effect, with many people in Poland endorsing calls to “Close the Sky” despite having no real concept of what it would actually entail (World War III, according to Marco Rubio). Often, they appear to be unaware that it would even involve US military action. “Close the Sky” seems to mostly function as a generic slogan of solidarity with Ukrainians — which is, of course, understandable given the circumstances. However, it makes their emotionally-affecting advocacy all the more dangerous.
A major question right now is whether the heightened fervor increasingly on display in the US — which is really calling the shots in terms of how the “West” reacts to the war — will eventually match up with observable reality in the NATO countries bordering Ukraine. Krakow, despite the roving bands of US troops and a plethora of Ukrainian flags draped everywhere, largely carries on as normal. To the extent things are unsettled, it’s by a muddled sense of fraught ambiguity that permeates.